Melton prior Institut


Linton- Life in the Collections

Richard Garnett:

17) The Life of W.J. Fox, Public Teacher & Reformer 1786-1864.

London 1910

The author of this valuable biography, which was finished by his son and published posthumously, was a prolific biographer of the literary traditions of radicalism, among them works on Milton, Blake, and Shelley.

William Johnson Fox was a charismatic minister of the Unitarians, of that section of Dissenters, which had become a decisive formative force in the development of British radicalism in the 18th century, with exponents like Joseph Priestley and Jeremy Bentham. Fox had achieved considerable fame as a stirring orator and a prolific journalist and pamphleteer. He had been one of the very few middle-class “honorary” members of the London Working Men’s Association, an early and rather intellectual labour organisation, which had been founded in 1836 in order “to draw into one bond of unity the intelligent and influential portion of the working classes in town and country. To seek by every legal means to place all classes of society in possession of the equal political and social rights.” His position as the owner and editor of The Monthly Repository, an advanced magazine of literary and political concerns, had enabled Fox to become one of the leading advocates of increasing educational prospects for the lower classes and to promote working-class literature in a most effective way. In her Introduction to working class literature in Great Britain, Phyllis Mary Ahsraf asserts that the recognition of the progressive role of working class culture by Fox differed very much from the patronizing views of the liberal press.

Before Fox took over, The Monthly Repository had been a sectarian religious organ of the Unitarians. He changed it into “a more overtly political journal with the aim of forging a Utilitarian, Benthamite aesthetic. (...) His reading of Benthamism meant in the first place the dissemination of pleasure in its widest sense, the democratisation of literature and the exploration of the links between literature and politics. These links were not simply between the Zeitgeist or a loosely defined ‘spirit of the age’ but involve the conceptualising of what we would now call an ideological relation between literature and the power structure of society.” (Isobel Armstrong) Democratic literature should deal with social concerns; and it should include a kind of poetry, which not only topically deals with poverty, but which is an authentic organ of the poor, because “poetry for the poor or about the poor would be different from poetry by the poor, because the history of the working class is formed in different circumstances. (...) Fox is not advocating social realism (which would be the patronising poetry of the gentleman looker-on) but the passionate poetry which returns to `the sorrowing or joyous cry of the intellect´, which was the possession of popular culture before the `distinct articulation of science´, and, he might have added, of class, restricted the nature of poetry.” (Isobel Armstrong)


In his cottage in Craven Hill Gardens, Fox surrounded himself from the early Thirties on with a group of intellectuals, which had been characterized by the Unitarian philosopher James Martineau as a “free-thinking and free-living clique.” Among them were writers, artists, and social reformers like Robert Browning, Eliza Flowers, Margaret Gillies, Douglas Jerrold, Harriet Martineau, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Southwood Smith, Harriet Taylor, Thomas Wade, Egerton Webbe and later also young Linton, a formation, that conceived itself ”as avant-garde, experimenting with the new in political, theological and aesthetic matters, defing new categories and defamiliarising the old.” (Isobel Armstrong)  Fox’ function as a literary nodal point was only matched in the Forties by Charles Dickens, but Dickens represented prose, the new victorious mode of literature, whereas Fox embodied that rather outdated form, that had been conveived by Shelley in his Defence of Poetry as being the true legislative, the literary representative of the framework of society.

To Linton, Fox was of vital importance as a campaigner for a democratic culture, and as a lively and powerful example of Republican committment. In him he found “a model of the self-made prophet, able to speak both to middle-class intellectuals and to working-class radicals.” (F. B. Smith) In his biography of the radical publisher James Watson, Linton refers to Fox as “the virtual founder of that new school of English radicalism, which looked beyond the established traditions of French revolution, and more poetical, escaped the narrowness of Utilitarianism.”  This kind of expanded Utilitarianism, uniting individual and social concerns, art and life on a poetical level, had also prepared the ground for the Secularist Movement, which in fact had been a direction of highly spiritual concerns. It was W.J. Fox, who had defended the founder of the Secular Movement, George Holyoake, in 1842 against a blasphemy conviction, and in many respects he had paved the way for the last and most consistent followers of the BenthamShelley atheism, of Charles Bradlaugh and his ingenious poetic mouthpiece James B.V. Thomson.

The connection with Fox’ Craven Hill circle provided Linton with an international network of free thinkers and social campaigners, among them also exponents of the American transcendentalist movement like Margaret Fuller, who became one of the most decided supporters of Mazzini’s cause in 1848. Since Ralph Waldo Emerson, the mastermind of the Transcendentalists, had visited London in 1832, the contact to the London Unitarians had been a close one.  After Linton’s emigration, this Unitarian network proved to be of increasing worth to him.